How important is keeping your options open?


  • Keeping your options open is more important for effective altruists than in conventional career choice.
  • Keeping your options open seems at least as important as the immediate impact of your job for most effective altruists.
  • For some effective altruists, it’s likely to be several times more important than immediate impact.
  • This means it’s highly important to adopt flexible career strategies. For instance, we think it’s important to focus on developing broadly useful capacities (career capital) that generally improve your ability to have impact in the future. It’s also a reason in favor of Earning to Give, since donations are extremely flexible.


Why do so many elite graduates go into finance and consulting? At Princeton, for example, more than 30% enter finance alone.

The Aspen Impact Careers recently conducted research that attempted to work out why so many elite graduates enter finance and consulting (unpublished). They found several important factors, which chime with the explanations proposed by commentators in the media. But they proposed that the single biggest factor was a desire to keep options open. Entry level consulting and finance jobs successfully market themselves as a great general purpose training and a ticket to all sorts of other jobs in the future. The same is true of Teach for America. The demand is real, and all three have been rewarded with strong applications.

From an entirely personal point of view, it makes sense to prioritise keeping your options open in the first couple of years of your career. You have little idea what you’ll enjoy or be good at when you start working, or what opportunities will come your way in the future. A good way to deal with the problem is to take the job that most keeps your options open. That way you can learn more about what you enjoy, but retain the ability to switch into another job if it turns out you don’t enjoy your first one.

For effective altruists, keeping your options open is even more important. Not only do you need to take into account all the extra information you can learn about what suits you personally, you need to take into account information about in which cause you can make the largest contribution, and which cause is most effective.

Imagine you’re ending your career this year instead of starting it. When you started working, 50 years ago, the big issues of today were not on the table. AIDS and climate change were not regarded as huge problems. The big issue was nuclear war. No one could have predicted with any certainty which issues would become important over the next decades.

Our future is similarly unpredictable. Indeed, as technological change and communication speed up, we might even expect the future to be less predictable than it was back then.

Not only can the world change, but (i) your evidence about which cause is most effective can change as you do more research and (ii) your beliefs about what’s valuable can change. Putting all of these together, it seems reasonable to expect that you’ll want to switch causes in the future. Since some causes are much more effective than others, the ability to switch looks like it matters a great deal for your expected future impact.

If keeping your options open is highly important, then we should aim to pick the most flexible career paths.

For effective altruists, how important is keeping your options open compared to your immediate impact?

Let’s review the key arguments in favor of keeping your options open compared to maximising your immediate impact.

The increasing effectiveness of the most effective cause

It seems to us that the main reason to keep your options open is the expectation that we’ll have much better information about which cause is most effective in the near future. This is because in the last few years a systematic research program aimed at identifying the best cause has started.

The best expertise in prioritisation research is currently focused on evaluating funding opportunities rather than career opportunities. I recently polled several people who have been involved with prioritisation research at the Centre for Effective Altruism on how much more effective they expect GiveWell’s top recommendation to be in two years. They gave me answers ranging from 50-300% and several said they expected increases of that order to continue for significantly more than two years.

If this is also true for the causes you can pursue in your career, then if you are unable to switch causes in two years, you’ll be losing 30-70% of your annual impact. If this rate of compounding continues over 10 years, then someone who can switch causes will have 6 times more impact over the next 10 years than someone who can’t. This suggests that keeping your options open is several times more important than your immediate impact.

These estimates are for the increasing effectiveness of donations. Can we expect increases of this size for the causes you can pursue with your human capital rather than with money? If your strategy for impact involves filling a funding gap, either via fundraising, influencing budgets or earning to give then the estimates for the increasing effectiveness of Givewell recommendations will apply directly.

With the other sorts of impact you could have in your career by applying human capital, the answer is less clear. One reason to be optimistic is that very little work has been done on the impact of different careers, so it might be easy to make progress in working out their effectiveness. In that case, it will be better to stay flexible. One reason to be pessimistic is that it seems likely to be harder to evaluate career opportunities for impact than donation opportunities. It’s unclear to me where these two considerations balance out, but I find it hard to imagine that in a world where we learn so much about how best to spend money, we won’t learn a great deal that is relevant to working out the best way to spend human capital.

Better information on what you’re good at

Since there are no highly reliable general ways to predict which types of job different people will be good at, we need to use trial and error. After several years of work, you’ll have much better information about what types of job best suits you, and thus where you’ll have the most impact.

If you stay flexible, then you’ll be able to switch into a different job in which you can have more impact.

Learning about your values

In addition to gaining more evidence about the world, you may come to change your values. This could be especially likely if you haven’t given much thought to your values before. Certain changes in your values can have large effects on which cause you think is most important. For instance, if you change your opinion about the importance of animal welfare compared to human welfare, then you might switch from supporting Givewell recommendations to EAA recommendations. This reason to keep your options open can be just as powerful as further cost-effectiveness research.

Immediate impact is good for your motivation

Against these three points, it’s much more inspiring to have impact straight away rather than delay it to the future. If you worry about becoming demotivated over time, then it might be better to prioritise having some immediate impact.

Learning about effectiveness from doing

Also against these points, to the extent that learning about which causes are most effective comes from trying things out, we need some people to keep trying things in order for others to learn from them. This would reduce the extent to which your individual flexibility is important.

However, I tend to think that the majority of extra information about which causes are important will come from more research, not from trying stuff out, so this is not a significant consideration.

Summing up

  1. It strikes me that for most effective altruist minded people, keeping options will open will at least have similar importance to immediate impact.
  2. For people who think the state of career prioritisation research will advance as much as the estimates of the rate of improvement in Givewell’s top recommendation above, then keeping options open is likely to be several times more important than immediate impact.

How can you best keep your options open?

I’ll explore this in a future post, but there’s one confusing point I’d like to clear up immediately. Often the best way to keep your options is to have a large immediate impact. The image we have of ‘keeping options open’ is being cautious and noncommittal. In contrast, if you really want options, then the best thing to do is often to build career capital. That means going out there and being successful, gaining valuable skills and meeting lots of people. So, in practice, keeping your options open often doesn’t look as different from maximising your immediate impact as you might expect. Nevertheless, there are trade-offs, and we’ll explore some particularly good ways of keeping your options open in a later post.

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